Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Moroni in the Morning

Recently, the Dallas Morning News carried an insightful article, here, noting the dedication of young Mormons in the north Dallas suburbs. Every morning, five days a week, LDS high school students meet at 5:45 A.M. for "Seminary"--an hour of Mormon studies, singing and prayer before school.

The writer notes that "the Mormon population continues to grow in Texas and elsewhere, thanks partly to conversions, but more to a large families and a focused, rigorous approach to practicing the faith that tends to keep people in the fold." (emphasis mine) Collin County, Texas is an overwhelmingly white, middle to upper middle class, right-wing Republican stronghold, giving McCain 62% in the last election (though this pales in comparison to my county which went 70% for the GOP.) This environment has proved fertile ground for the Mormon message. In the last decade, Latter Day Saints have seen their numbers double in Collin County, rising from 6,000 to 11,000. And enrollment in the early morning "Seminary" stands at 569 students this semester. The eager, well-scrubbed students seem nonplussed by the early hours:

"It is the best way to start my day...I feel the spirit of the Holy Ghost, and I'm able to carry that with me."

"It's hard, but I know I'll benefit from it...It helps my day go so much better."

Nor is it just a semester of study. "It's a four-year program, with a year each spent on the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and the church's Doctrine and Covenants. (Church history is included in that year.) Students are encouraged to memorize 25 verses a year." The Collin County students are studying their way through the Book of Mormon, and are currently in the First Book of Nephi. According to the article, completion of the course gives you a leg up for admittance to BYU.

I have to admit, I do admire their commitment and self-discipline. Mind you, I did not say sincerity. Sincerity will only get you so far, and every last one of us has been guilty at one time or another of being sincerely, but spectacularly wrong. In my case, the rigours of a disciplined faith is one aspect I appreciate in Orthodoxy--though I am in no way comparing or contrasting the two, for they are different things altogether, but am merely acknowledging the attraction of a serious, committed faith that makes demands on one.

And believe me, these young people would have to be true believers, studying the Book of Mormon at 5:45 in the morning, all the while completely uncaffienated. The BOM is perhaps the most mind-numbingly dull and stilted a piece of fiction as you would ever attempt to read.

I can say this because I have read it--the whole thing. I had a brief infatuation with Mormonism, one that perhaps lasted the better part of a week. I was raised as...well, basically nothing at all, but always knew that I wanted to be something. During my adolescence and early teen years, I was picked up after school and taken downtown where both of my parents had their offices. I would stay there until one of them headed home. Sometimes I would make deliveries, but often I would just read, work on my homework, or walk around downtown. This was back when there were actually things to see downtown, before our local banks destroyed it. Mormon missionaries had set up shop in one of the dusty old vacant store buildings on the north side of the square. I would walk slowly by, looking at the displays in the window, but too scared to actually go inside.

And then one summer, I accompanied my great-aunt and cousin to the Hemisfair in San Antonio. As I recall, the Mormons had a slick and elaborate exhibit there, with lots of their standard imagery writ large--the "angel" Moroni and Joseph Smith, white Jesus in front of a Mayan temple teaching the "Lamanites," the he-man Nephi, etc. Long story short, I was able to procure a free Book of Mormon, protected as I was by the anonymity of a crowd. It was one of those ubiquitous blue copies that one used to see everywhere. The picture plates inside the volume gave the false promise of a fascinating read.

But slogging through the Book of Mormon turned out to be something of an ordeal. I was a voracious reader even then--if I hadn't already read War and Peace, I wasn't far from it. So, the length of the work did not intimidate me. My problem was not with its theology. Like I say, I was raised as nothing at all, and had no context to even recognize the multi layered heresies within the Book of Mormon. Looking back, I can now articulate my misgivings about the work. I found the whole thing simply unbelievable, completely lacking in historical context and authenticity. At that young age, I had been fascinated with anything pertaining to native Americans. I was well-versed about all things Mayan, likewise the Aztecs, or the Incas, the Pueblo Indians, the Navajos, the mound-builders, the Iroquois, etc. I devoured each issue of the National Geographic, back when they published articles on places and history, rather than "issues." I was a sucker for any story with an exotic locale. I could believe King Solomon's Mines. But this Book of Mormon stuff was hokum.

As I understand it, Mormon missionaries do not lead with this, rather emphasizing morality and the values of a tight-knit community. The hokum, it seems, is brought in only after the hook is set. So, the Book of Mormon read alone, without prompts from missionaries, did nothing for me. Even if it had, their no-coffee rule would have weeded me out soo enough, as would the no-alcohol rule in a slightly later stage of life. So, I coasted through the rest of my teenage years immune from missionary zeal of whatever stripe, even enduring a couple of vapid Young Life rallies my sophomore year of high school, without long-lasting damage.

Again, I respect the discipline of these pre-dawn students. And, I might add, Mormons are some of my favorite people. Throughout the year, I occasionally order microfilm from the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City. They send the film to the Mormon stake in our city where it can be viewed on the microfilm readers there. This is where I sometimes spend my lunch hours. Over the years, they have grown accustomed to me and consequently pay me little attention, carrying on with their normal conversations, which I can assure are every bit as petty and gossipy as those of any other American religious group. And of course, I still enjoy seeing the Mormon art on the walls (which hasn't changed one iota in 40 years): white Jesus in front of a Mayan temple, white Jesus and the 12 white Apostles in Garden of Gethsemane, and as always, Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates.

In fact, the Mormons are building a new 24,000 sq. ft. stake in our little community, dwarfing any of our Baptist churches, or the Methodist church. The last time they came to our front door, I had a good time joking around with them, threatening to report them to Salt Lake City for driving a Yukon instead of a bicycle, etc. As they were leaving, without thinking, I did the Southern-hospitality thing and invited them to come back next time they were in town. Like I say, I like these people and respect their dedication. It's just their religion I find incomprehensible.


Becky said...

I had two run-ins with Mormon missionaries, one female pair and one male pair, both during the first year I was married. I made the mistake of giving the female ones my phone number (I was young, naive, and honestly knew NOTHING about Mormonism). Unfortunately, I had to get pretty ugly with her on the phone to make her understand she had to stop calling (ugly as in, your book is a bunch of nonsense with whole swathes copied straight from the Bible, I don't believe it has any authenticity, STOP CALLING ME). And boy are you right about the book of mormon - snoozeville! (this is Mary from church by the way, in my gmail clothes). : )

Kirk said...

"This was back when there were actually things to see downtown, before our local banks destroyed it."

What do you mean by this? I'd like to see you blog about this.

There is no shortage of Mormons in the counties to your north, either. [shudder]

Terry (John) said...

Becky, all my interactions with Mormons have been pleasant, I suppose, for they have generally been with people I know. And of course, we have never discussed theology. I remember being in Bulgaria in 2003 (before I was Orthodox.) I was walking across one of the main squares in central Sofia. I saw 3 young men strategically placed around the plaza. They were neatly dressed, with white shirts and ties--and every one of them was blond (this REALLY stood out in Bulgaria.) It suddenly hit me what they were--Mormon missionaries. I wanted to yell GO HOME! TAKE YOUR AMERICAN CRAZINESS BACK TO WHERE IT CAME FROM! BULGARIA HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS WITHOUT YOU BEING HERE.! But I didn't.

Kirk, even after the Tyler business community tore down the most beautiful courthouse in Texas and replaced it with the 3rd-ugliest courthouse in Texas in 1953, the city still had a nice downtown, with plenty of historic old structures still in place. In the 1970s, the very same business community (i.e., the downtown bankers) went crazy with bank expansions. The better part of 4 blocks were razed, so that the banks could do away with their architecturally significant buildings and replace them with loads of parking lots and the modern structures which now mar the downtown skyline of the city. Though I wasn't there at the time, I remember hearing 2 anecdotes from the grand opening of the bank building we dub the "Blackfinger" building. Standing in the grand marble lobby, my brother looked around and told one the vice-presidents, "well, you could sure stack a lot of hay in here." On the other side of the room, a man who would become my best friend some 15 years later remarked to the president of the bank, "one of these days the citizens will rise up and chase you bankers across these marble floors and club you down like harp seals." My brother and future friend were more on the mark than they knew--all the downtown banks went belly-up in the 80s, and the downtown they killed off has never revived, despite ongoing efforts to revitalize.